UNION CITY, New Jersey– I am so happy my grandparents did not live to see President Obama’s announcement yesterday that the United States would legitimize the Castro dictatorship. It would have killed them.
Unlike most of my peers, my family has no heroic stories of WWII veterans or Civil War love letters. Our story here starts in 1973, when my grandparents and my father arrived in Union City, New Jersey, after more than a decade’s work trying to get out of the coastal city of Cárdenas, Cuba.
For many who read the announcement regarding lifting of certain sanctions on the Castro regime, it may be difficult to understand the reluctance to celebrate on the part of the Cuban American exile community. Yes, the embargo’s objective of dethroning the Castros has failed; yes, in countries like China, capitalism has helped cement a want of freedom that has slowly but surely built the foundations of a pro-freedom movement. Yes, it was time to try something new.
But whatever it was, this was not it. These actions by the United States government, relayed to the Cuban public by a smiling, still-in-power Raúl Castro, have added yet another humiliation of the Cuban exile people before the world — a people who, after 56 years, have been humiliated enough.
The approach the Obama administration has taken is one which required nothing from the Cuban government, save the release of USAID prisoner Alan Gross and an unnamed agent said to have been valuable to the United States (we may never know). The other “reforms” would require action by the Cuban government that is far from guaranteed. The American government would allow US telecommunications companies to build internet infrastructure in Cuba; it would allow certain trade and extended opportunities to visit the island. It would not require Cuba to issue permits for the construction of such infrastructure or rescind its recently-issued limitations on family visits to Cuba and trade in necessary goods with people on the island. It guaranteed nothing as far as the toxic relationship Cuba enjoys with the largest non-jihadist terrorist organization in the world, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and it did not require Cuba to extradite notorious police killers like Joanne Chesimard, who received asylum in Cuba.
These are all political grievances, however, and no matter how serious they may be, they can never fully account for the visceral reactions from the Cuban American community today. President Obama, perhaps sensing the inevitability of such a reaction, had no explanation to the Cuban American people, merely: “I respect your passion.” Raúl Castro did him one better, calling the new normal just one more step toward a “prosperous and sustainable socialism.”
And here lies the core moral aberration that has riled up the Cuban community. It is not solely about economic opportunity—though it is very much so about that—nor is it exclusively a matter of the Castro regime potentially earning windfall profits from tourist visits without a single concession on human rights.
Exiles and their families came to America seeking one place in the world where they could be guaranteed sanctuary from the circus of communism– the speeches, the parades, the endless celebration of their own misery. As such, watching Castro’s victory lap in tandem with the President’s concession speech to him was yet another blow in a 56-year psychological assault on our dignity.
Every Cuban exile and descendent has a personal story to highlight this, and only the collective thread of these personal stories can portray the insidious work the communist regime engages in undermining the dignity of the Cuban people.
My grandparents’ story is perhaps less violent or brutal than those whose relatives fought in Bay of Pigs or endured several decades in Cuban political prison. It’s a humble story. My grandparents served three years in “voluntary” agricultural gulags—abuela in the orange fields, abuelo on the dangerous henequén night shift—to get their only son out of Cuba. Their “voluntary” work was punitive; my grandfather owned a bicycle shop in which he rented bicycles to American tourists, which made him a member of the petit bourgeoisie and thus an outlaw. He didn’t help the situation by making a joke at the Revolution’s expense within earshot of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution shortly before the expropriation.
After nationalizing the shop, he was forced to work. In the interim, upon announcing plans to leave Cuba, they were called “gusanos,” or worms, a common derogatory term for Cubans seeking asylum in the United States, especially if they were too poor to get out within the first five years. My father was told time and again in school that his grades would suffer because he was leaving Cuba, while being bullied relentlessly for being a gusano. The nightmare only ended after arriving in America in 1973, after a brief stint in Spain.
They did not choose to abandon Cuba; the Cuban people abandoned them in their Marxist frenzy, and the choice to go elsewhere WAS made for them. They, unlike some Cubans, chose never to return– save for the funeral of my great-grandmother– because they had been humiliated enough.
When they came here, to Union City, all my family wanted was a place where they could work and spend time as a family, grow and live, without the endless droning speeches of some party representative blaring from the state’s street speakers. They wanted a place where they would no longer have to tolerate a slow but relentless stream of humiliation pouring over them, reminding that they are not wanted if they believe in something bigger than the Party.
The government in the United States, they hoped, would merely let them be, asking only that they file some papers and, if they became citizens one day, serve on a jury. They wanted to no longer be mocked because of their fundamental belief that they should be entitled to, as Cuban patriot José Martí once said, “be honest, and to think and to speak without hypocrisy.” To not have an ideology that necessitates hypocrisy shoved down their throats.
It is perhaps fitting that President Obama quoted Martí’s quote halfway, comically shortening it to: “Liberty is the right of every man to be honest.”
The United States has, for the most part, given our family the escape we sought. Last night, however, for the first time, the country no longer felt immune to the influence of the Castro dictators, at least so long as President Obama is around.
On television, Facebook, and Twitter, an assortment of future Cuban tourists lamented a future American presence on the island, hoping that capitalism doesn’t “ruin” a dystopia decades in the making. The Castro and Obama speeches, side by side, played at every news website. Suddenly, the Castros were inescapable once again, with even the yanquis celebrating with them, and the confidence I had had since childhood that this country was untouchable for the Castros, specifically, and no one would force me to revel in a communist victory, felt vulnerable.
It is a difficult question to answer, except to note that, often, for Cubans who have lost their homeland—or who have vowed to never see their nominal homeland, like me—our pain appears forgotten. Our ancestors suffered in labor camps and rotted in political prisons for freedom; were beaten in public and stripped of their livelihoods. But, on television, our culture is reduced to sexy ladies and expensive cigars. Our protests of the cruelty of the Castro dictatorship are drowned out by Josh Earnest joking that the President may one day visit a Cuban hotel– where no Cuban national is allowed to step— because Cuba has “a beautiful climate and a lot of fun things to do.”
And all for nothing but our own humiliation in the public eye once again because, as mentioned above, without significant reforms on the part of the Castro regime, the situation will remain the same.